Foreign ministers of the Caspian littoral states meet in Astana on July 13, 2016. (photo: MFA Russia)
Are the five states around the Caspian Sea finally going to resolve their dispute about how to divide the body of water between themselves?
A number of unusually positive statements from diplomats from the littoral states have suggested that the seemingly intractible dispute is on the verge of being resolved. But if any of the Caspian countries have softened their negotiating positions -- the intransigence of which has resulted in this long dispute -- they aren't telling.
The foreign ministers of the five states -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- met last week in Astana, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the sides could reach an agreement in a year.
"I believe it is absolutely realistic to aim for signing the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea in 2017. I think this can be done even in the first half of the year," he said. That enthusiasm was shared by Kazakhstan, whose prime minister, Karim Massimov, tweeted: "Met with foreign ministers of Caspian littoral states. There's hope for prompt completion of talks over Caspian Sea Legal Status Convention."
Turkey's TCG Tekirdağ patrol boat, taking part in Breeze 2016 exercises off the coast of Bulgaria (photo: The Bug Pit)
Russia has announced the deployment of more advanced air defense systems to Crimea, a move to protect the region from what one official called NATO's "air hooligans."
In August, the18th anti-aircraft missile regiment of the 31st Air Defense Division, based in Feodosia, will be equipped with Russia's top-of-the-line S-400 Triumf air defense system. It's yet a further buildup of Russia's defenses along its southwestern border against what it sees as a hostile western military threat in the Black Sea. This would complement Russia's system of land-based anti-ship missile defenses along the Black Sea, which already effectively let Russia control the surface of the sea.
"Placing the S-400 air defense system on duty in Crimea effectively locks down the Crimean sky against any attack from the air. The very fact of the placement of this advanced air defense system in Crimea will keep honest all NATO aviation based in the Black Sea region," said Crimea's vice premier, Ruslan Balbek.
The deployment is most likely directed against the United States as the only air force likely to threaten Crimea by air, said retired Colonel General Igor Maltsev, a former commander of Russia's air defense force.
Azerbaijan claims to be close to fielding a domestically produced armed drone, another escalation in its race to arm to take back the territory it lost to Armenian forces.
Azerbaijan's domestic arms industry will be able to supply the drones to its armed forces "in the near future," said Yaver Jamalov, the country's Minister of Defense Industry, at a cabinet meeting Sunday.
"Testing of the unmanned aerial vehicle 'Zarba,' created by your [President Ilham Aliev] on short notice, has been successful, and in the near future the device will be handed over to the armed forces," Jamalov said.
This would seem to be Azerbaijan's first armed drone. It has used surveillance drones, mostly purchased from Israel, for several years and in April's heavy fighting with Armenia it emerged that Azerbaijan also had Israeli Harop "kamizake drones," which are themselves the bomb. Armenia also operates small, domestically produced surveillance UAVs.
This announcement comes amid an unprecedented diplomatic push to try to resolve the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh, which Armenia won from Azerbaijan in a war as the Soviet Union collapsed.
NATO put off a decision on creating an alliance Black Sea naval force, which had been promoted by several alliance members as a means of beefing up the NATO presence on its southeastern border with Russia.
The alliance, as expected, agreed to set up a multinational land brigade based in Romania, which is intended to "contribute to the Alliance’s strengthened deterrence and defence posture, situational awareness, and peacetime demonstration of NATO’s intent to operate without constraint" and "provide a strong signal of support to regional security," according to the final communique issued by the alliance at the conclusion of its summit on Saturday in Warsaw.
But as for increasing sea or air activities around the Black Sea, NATO agreed to keep discussing: "Options for a strengthened NATO air and maritime presence will be assessed." It continued: "We will continue to address the implications for NATO of developments in the region and take them into account in the Alliance’s approaches and policies. We will continue to support, as appropriate, regional efforts by the Black Sea littoral states aimed at ensuring security and stability. We will also strengthen our dialogue and cooperation with Georgia and Ukraine in this regard."
An adviser to American presidential candidate Donald Trump has criticized United States policy in Central Asia as unnecessarily antagonistic, giving a rare glimpse into what a Trump presidency could mean for U.S. relations in the region.
The adviser, Carter Page, spoke Thursday in Moscow, and the main theme of the talk was that Russia and China have more successfully pursued their interests in Central Asia because they deal on the basis of “respect, equality and mutual benefit.” That, he argued, was one of the reasons for the flourishing of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Central Asia.
Page contrasted that with the American approach, which he said was characterized by books like "Chaos, Violence, Dynasty," and "Predatory Regimes." (He was referring, apparently, to academic monographs by Eric McGlinchey and Scott Radnitz.) This, Page argued, was evidence of "nakedly emotional approaches to news, often involving expressions of opinion and lacking verification of factual assertion" which typified "mainstream western discourse" on Central Asia.
The NATO-Georgia Commission meets in Warsaw on July 8. (photo: NATO)
Georgia and NATO announced their new program for cooperation at the alliance's summit in Warsaw, and it appears to contain little new for Tbilisi.
Ahead of the summit, Georgian officials had said they were hoping for "instruments" for self-defense. “Indicator of success [at the summit] will be having more self-defense capabilities, which means being more secure and having more instruments for deterrence,” said Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli in April.
By that measure, the summit results appear to be a disappointment. On Friday, at the end of the first day of the summit, the NATO-Georgia Commission released a statement laying out their position and plans. The key paragraph in the statement describing what NATO will offer Georgia is pretty vague:
We have also decided on new steps to intensify our cooperation, to help strengthen Georgia’s defence capabilities, interoperability and resilience capabilities. These initiatives include increased support for Georgia’s Training and Education, including through a possible trust fund project, and Strategic Communications. Allies will provide support to the development of Georgia’s air defence and air surveillance. Allies bilaterally are implementing programmes to enhance Georgia’s self-defence and resilience. We will also deepen our focus on security in the Black Sea region.
U.S. soldiers training at Noble Partner exercises in Vaziani, Georgia, in May. (photo: U.S. Army Europe)
The United States is shifting its military assistance to Georgia to help the country defend itself instead of preparing it for international deployments, with a new agreement signed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Tbilisi.
The agreement "defines our security partnership and the steps we will take together to further Georgia’s reliance and its resilience and its self-defense capabilities," Kerry said Wednesday at a press conference with Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili.
U.S. military aid has until recently largely been focused on making the country interoperable with NATO members' militaries, as well as lighter and more efficient in order to be more readily deployable to U.S. and European military operations abroad. That meant, for example, American soldiers were training their Georgian counterparts on how to run a checkpoint or patrol a village rather than helping them get the anti-tank or anti-aircraft weapons they would need in a war in Georgia. This allowed Georgia to ingratiate itself with its American and NATO partners, but obviously carried risks given that the country believes it is at threat from Russian attack.
"There was a tacit understanding that Georgian participation in Afghanistan had combat training that made Georgian soldiers better equipped for territorial defense, but the training wasn't territorial defense per se, or even combined arms. They definitely got into combat situations in Afghanistan, but the transferability of skills was inexact," said Michael Cecire, a Caucasus defense analyst and associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, in an email interview with The Bug Pit.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meets with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in Sochi on July 1, the first high-level meeting in seven months between the two countries. (photo: MFA Russia)
Turkey's foreign minister floated a proposal to let Russia use a key air base for a joint fight against ISIS in Syria. He later qualified the offer, but it nevertheless was a measure of how rapidly Turkey's foreign policy, in particular its relationship to Russia, is changing.
On Monday, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told state broadcaster TRT that Turkey would cooperate with"“everybody who is fighting Islamic State," adding: "Ankara has opened the Incirlik airbase to all those wishing to join the active fight. Why not cooperate with Russia in the same manner?”
Those remarks caused a minor furor in Turkey and Russia, given what until just a few days ago was a dangerous level of tension between the two states caused by Turkey's shooting down last year of a Russian plane on the Turkey-Syria border.
Cavusoglu was forced to clarify: "We said that we could cooperate with Russia in the period ahead in the fight against Daesh ...I did not make any comment referring to Russian planes coming to the Incirlik Air Base."
Not everyone was convinced by that denial. "I think officials in Ankara wanted to see the possible reactions about Incirlik issue," said Mehmet Fatih Öztarsu, an analyst who follows Turkish relations with the post-Soviet world. "Even pro-governmental media published the same speech but a few hours later [Cavusoglu] denied it. It was an attempt to understand domestic and international balance," Öztarsu said in an email interview with The Bug Pit. He added that while Russia's use of Incirlik -- a key hub for NATO allies including the United States -- was unlikely, some form of military cooperation could be expected to develop between Turkey and Russia.
Turkmenistan is getting more directly involved in affairs in northern Afghanistan, an area inhabited by ethnic Turkmens, as instability festers on the border between the two countries.
The Turkmenistan government recently invited several local northern Afghanistan officials to Turkmenistan in late June, and gave free medical care to a commander in an ethnic Turkmen paramilitary unit fighting the Taliban in northern Afghanistan, the commander told the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Also visiting Turkmenistan were the head of the border police in a district of Afghanistan bordering Turkmenistan, other paramilitary commanders, and the head of the highway police in one northern Afghanistan region. It wasn't clear what the other officials were doing in Turkmenistan, but RFE/RL notes that it is rare for Turkmenistan to give visas to ethnic Turkmens from Afghanistan. The paramilitary commander, Emir Allaberen Karya, told RFE/RL that he hoped Ashgabat would "continue to help the Afghan Turkmens." It's not clear what that help has consisted of, but one assumes it is more than the occasional health care junket to Ashgabat.
Karya said it was his first visit to Turkmenistan and that he had been hoping to meet there other commanders of his group, Arbaky, from neighboring regions but that a Taliban attack on his unit had forced him to return to Afghanistan ahead of schedule.
Also in late June, Turkmenistan's foreign minister Rashid Meredov visited northern Afghanistan unannounced, RFE/RL reported. Meredov visited Jowzjan, Faryab, and Balkh provinces where he visited Turkmenistan-financed development projects and met with local leaders. In one part of the visit his convoy hit a mine, though Meredov was apparently unharmed.
Georgia's military has abolished mandatory military service, becoming the first post-Soviet state (outside of the Baltics) to manage to do so.
Georgia has talked about getting rid of the draft for years, and Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli on Monday announced that it was finally happening. “The Georgian Armed Forces do not need a service member brought in on the compulsory basis,” Khidasheli said, according to Civil.ge.
Most states would like to get rid of conscription for obvious reasons -- people don't like it, and soldiers who are forced to be there are not the best soldiers. The trick is to have enough money to pay a high enough salary to soldiers to want to join of their own volition. Khidasheli did not mention any budget ramifications of the move, but she argued that service in the armed forces is “prestigious” and there is a “high demand” for joining the army voluntarily.
The move faced criticism even from many of Khidasheli's allies. The country's president, prime minister, and chair of the parliamentary committee on defense all said she should have consulted with them. “Such decisions – no matter right or wrong and whether we agree or disagree – should not be taken by a single official; instead it should be discussed by the government session and the National Security Council,” President Giorgi Margvelashvili told journalists on Monday. However, he stopped short of suggesting that he would contest the decision.